Her Salty Lips

A late night in 2000, driving a long, quiet stretch of the Garden State Parkway, I was hit by one of those elusive, visceral memories I babbled on about in my last post.  A top forty station was the only thing I could get with any reliability and, since I needed noise to keep me awake, I had no choice but to mourn the death of western civilization at the hands of boy bands, autotuned popettes and suburban rappers.  Then, in the depths of my despair, a song came on that slapped me in the face.  It was an upbeat tune, pure pop and vaguely reminiscent of Nat King Cole’s “Lazy Days of Summer”, a favorite of mine.  The singer had the typically bland, squeaky pop voice and it wasn’t a particularly brilliant song but there was one line that almost made me hit the brakes: “When I kiss your salty lips”.  I was instantly transported back to the summer of ’77.

 

I am 15 years old, working at a summer camp in upstate New York.  It’s evening in the empty playground with a girl whose name I can no longer remember.   The last sliver of light is silhouetting the trees and providing enough glow to make everything beautiful.  She’s my age, probably a waitress.   We’ve been talking, moving nervously closer to each other in an excruciating dance of expectation.  Fleeting, accidental contact, our heads tilting in a super slow motion collision.  I’m going to kiss her! It’s not my first kiss, but it will be my first “French” kiss.  Our mouths meet and the first thing I think is “Her lips taste salty, weird.” 

 

I had to make a piece about that, not necessarily a literal rendering but something that afforded me the same reverie as that insipid song.  I painted “Her Salty Lips” (2000, 24” x 48”, OC) for the exhibition that I was getting ready for.  It was one of the first to sell and I was surprised at the opening how many people understood what it meant from the title.

 

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The image still gnawed at me afterward so I got to work on an icon for myself.  It was one of the most strangely sensual pieces I’d ever come up with and resonated with me much the same as Munch’s “The Voice/Summer Night”, possibly the most erotic painting of all time.  If I could steal one picture in the world, this would be it.

 

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My second effort “Her Salty Lips” (2001, 6” x 14”, mixed media) allowed me to explore the subject more closely, building, recapturing the turning sky, the grass under our bare feet.  It’s one of the few pieces I’ve never allowed myself to part with and to make sure it always stayed around I gave it to my wife who still makes me swoon like that fifteen year old boy.

 

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Damn You, Mr. Bowie!

        One evening in the late 1980’s, I heard my cousin’s voice as I passed the Carriage House Inn; an old fashioned, old man’s bar. It was a relic of Park Slope’s pre-gentrified past.  I’d never been inside but had been fascinated by it since childhood because of the dusty model stagecoach in the window, hence the name.  He was my favorite relative even though he was almost old enough to be my uncle, so I decided to stop in and say hello.  There he was; holding court at the bar, jolly and not quite sober, arguing with one of his friends about the game on TV.   Although we saw each other on a regular basis (Sunday dinner was always a day long event at my aunt’s house), we’d never spent any time together socially, probably because of the age difference.  Now that I was in my twenties, it seemed only natural.  He was happily surprised to see me and offered me a drink.  Over the course of a beer our conversation went from small talk to more personal things.  It’s strange how you can know someone your whole life and never really get a sense of them.  Gradually, this happy go lucky joker became brooding and sullen, the beer made him honest.

“You know what really scares me?  I’m forty years old and I’m alone.  I don’t want to end up by myself.”  My father’s side of the family had a very high percentage of people who never married, for various reasons.  It had never occurred to me that my cousin was on his way to becoming one of them, or that he ever thought of it.  This was the first time he’d ever spoken to me as an adult, I felt honored and obliged to help.

“Well, what are you doing about it?  Are you dating?” I asked.

“I work odd hours and I never get a chance to meet anyone.”  He worked nights but that alone couldn’t damn him to eternal bachelorhood.  Then it hit me “Well, look where you hang out, look around. You spend your time in an old man bar for Christ’s sake!  Look, there are no women, just a bunch of old guys watching basketball!  How do expect to meet someone in a place like this?”  I felt so noble.  “You are never going to get laid if you stay here!”

I continued this concept for a few more minutes until I convinced him of the impossibility of ever meeting a girl in the hell hole we were in.  The bartender came over and asked me if I wanted another drink.  I really wasn’t crazy about the beer so I asked “Do you have Jaegermiester?”  This was in the days before it was mass marketed as the drink of choice for frat boys the world over.

“Did someone say Jaegermiester?” I heard a voice behind me ask.  I turned around and standing behind me was a very cute blonde!  “Yeah, I did, you know it?”

“Know it?  I love it!  I didn’t know anyone else knew about it!”  We immediately fell into conversation, and then I remembered my cousin.  When I turned and glanced over at him I could see what he was thinking by the look on his face.  He’d been coming here for years and never seen, let alone met, a girl while I pop in once and within twenty minutes I’m putting the munch on a cute one.  I felt like my fine noble lecture was a load of hypocritical bull, but she was too cute to pass up.  I introduced him, and myself, and dove back into my chat.

 After a few minutes she told me that she lived right above the bar, had never come in before and just wanted to see it.  “If you’d like to come up to my apartment, we could have another drink.”  The invitation was obviously just for me.  I turned to my cousin; he was just staring into space.  “Larry… um, you know… I think I’m gonna go with her.. are you ok?”   God knows what he was thinking at that moment.  Maybe if I hadn’t come in she could have wound up with him, maybe she was supposed to be the girl of his dreams.  He shrugged with a resigned smile, “Sure, go ahead, I would.”

I felt like a complete cad but, young buck that I was, I couldn’t pass it up.  We went upstairs to her small, tidy apartment.  She poured us more drinks and sat on the couch with me and took out some photos of the work she did.  She was a prop designer for the theatre.  She was currently working on some furniture pieces for a new Broadway musical version of The Phantom of the Opera… I wonder if it ever took off.  Then we started getting, um, comfortable and she asked if I’d like to hear some music.  “Do you like Bowie?  I have him singing Heroes in German!”

“I love Bowie!  Yeah, put it on.”  I was thinking two things simultaneously; it’s a great make out song and how could this rarity have escaped me?  She put it on and came back to the couch.

Ich, Ich bin dann König

Und Du, Du Königin

Obwohl sie, Unschlagbar scheinen

Werden wir Helden, Fur einen Tag

Wir sind dann wir, An diesem Tag

Hmm, I can’t believe I never heard this before… she smells nice, I can’t believe poor Larry… oh wait, this is from Cristiane F., he was performing it in a concert scene… I wonder if I’ll be staying over… the back wall of Connie Planck’s studio was the Berlin Wall, how cool is that?

Ich, Ich glaubte zu träumen

die Mauer, Im Rücken war kalt

Schüsse reissen die Luft, Doch wir küssen

Als ob nichts geschieht, Und die Scham fiel auf ihre seite

Oh, wir können sie schlagen, Für alle zeiten

Dann sind wir Helden, Für diesen Tag

This girl is… wait a minute, is she crying?  “Are you ok?”

 “Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that this song reminds me of someone.”

“Are you sure?  Maybe I should go so you can get some sleep.”

“I was going out with this guy in Berlin and this was our song, it just got me a little depressed for a minute.”  Then why the hell did she put it on in the first place?  Great, now she’s really sobbing.  Obviously she’s not over this guy, I’m not about to compete with him and I’m not about to be a rebound; perfect because I’m not him then inferior because I’m not him.

“Tell you what, how about I go home, I’m tired anyway, and I think you really need some sleep.  Next time we’ll have a proper date, alright?”  She thought about it for a moment and smiled with red eyes, “Ok, you can come over and we’ll order some Chinese food.”

“Sure, sounds great.”  She gave me her number and I told her I’d call in a day or two, knowing full well that I wouldn’t.

After about a month, guilt managed to catch up with me and I thought of her again.  She really was a sweet girl and I was, as usual, an asshole.  I found her number and called, it was no longer in service.  I looked at the buzzer on her building, her name was gone; she was gone.  Maybe she went back to Germany.  Maybe she was standing, by the Wall.  I hope so.

Dann sind wir Helden

Für diesen Tag

And here we are

By the fall of 1981, I’d decided that I couldn’t stand my school: Pratt-Phoenix School of Design, or my major: illustration.  I hated being a monkey who executed other people’s ideas and, being told that I should be an art director, realized that I also hated having monkeys executing MY ideas.  I despised the egocentric graphic design aesthetic and the anal retentive mentality of mistaking skill for talent.  In other words, I was a cranky bastard.  I quit my school four credits short of graduating, applied to the School of Visual Arts as a fine arts major and decided to take a semester off slumming around the UK.

            I had no clue what it was I wanted to do as an artist, or what my voice was.  I loved making things: furniture, sculpture, paintings, models, etc.   The only common thread that ran through them was that they were things that fascinated me at any given moment.  Maybe a trip would broaden me.

            The only plans I had made were to get a rail pass and a list of museums and artwork I wanted to see.  After a week or so in London I headed to Oxford for a day or two to see some Pre Raphaelites at the Ashmolean.  There was a Burne-Jones I particularly wanted to see.  No sooner did I arrive than I ran into an old grammar school classmate who was attending Oxford on a rugby scholarship. Rugby? From Brooklyn? How do you even do that?  Well, he insisted that I come with him to this great pub, the Turf.  I didn’t need to be asked twice to go drinking.

            Lukewarm stout you can eat with a fork, yum! Coming back from the bar with some drinks and there she is, sitting on my bench, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  Before you cite me for objectifying women by calling her “thing”, understand that she wasn’t just the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen, she was prettier than sunrise, puppies or a unicorn flying over a damned rainbow!  I am transfixed.

            “Am I sitting in your seat?” she asked me, breaking me out of my stupor.  “No, no, no…”

            I was madly in love with this girl before I’d even exhaled so I sat next to her and instantly started babbling.  How to chat up the love of your life when you are a bundle if nerves?  Simple, start an argument with her friend, that’ll impress her!  So I did, until I had enough nerve to start speaking to her directly, and when we finally started speaking, we continued for the next twenty-four hours.  Marina seemed to genuinely like me but rebuffed my advances and I was too much the earnest young man to push my luck.  Ultimately, I was hanging in the pseudo-friend zone, which was doubly painful as she never left my side (except for school and sleep) or let go of my hand. I spent the rest of my trip in Oxford, largely wasting my Britrail pass.  In the days before interwebs, facebooks and skype, a long distance relationship was pretty difficult and when it was time for me to leave, we left it as a self-contained moment in time.

            Now to my point, finally.  When I got back to Brooklyn I had two photographs of Marina and weeks worth of memories I desperately wanted to retain.  I painted a number of pictures of her based on those photos but none of them captured what I wanted.  Then I decided to make a miniature gouache of her to carry around in my pocket but how to protect it?  Little doors would do the trick, now I had two additional surfaces to paint on.  Once I’d finished it, it struck me like a punch in the face: THIS IS HOW I THINK!  Suddenly, everything made sense and I knew what I wanted from art and what was important to me.

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            SVA in the early eighties: neo-expressionism by the foot, structuralism,  Donald Judd whining about content and there I am, hunched over a tiny piece of board painting my little autobiographical pictures as my friends are standing on folding chairs, working on massive canvases that are going to tell the world exactly what is wrong with it.  I developed a reputation as a hapless romantic in my tweed suits, carrying my supplies in a violin case.  Pretentious? Moi?  But of course!

            Two years later, my friend and I are back in the UK on holiday.  Marina had become my unwitting muse and the center of my ever-expanding iconographic vocabulary.  Even after I’d moved to other subjects, she still appeared: the brick wall, pink sweater and more obtuse references that are my business alone.   Since we were there, of course I had to visit Marina.  It was also a chance to prove that this all-consuming girl of my dreams actually existed.  I was finally going to see her again, staying at her family’s house for the night.  Though I’d finally been able to start dating again after about a year, no one had ever broken through like her.

            She was a horror!  She seemed annoyed that I’d even come and only took the night off from work because her mother insisted she be a polite hostess.  I think my friend took some degree of pleasure in this as he had been listening to my stories of her for the last two years.  Bored with our awkward chatter in the study, he soon fell asleep.  No sooner does he pass out than she reverts to the warm, sweet girl I’d lost my heart to and again we were talking til the sun came up.  I gave her a small triptych I’d made of her as a thank you gift and off we went to Stonehenge.

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            Great, I thought I’d gotten her out of my system but she’d unknowingly wound herself back around my gut.  Right, nice guys do, in fact, finish last so goodbye tweed, hello leather jackets.  I saw Marina one more time the following year as she had come to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She phoned me out of the blue and I ran to meet her for lunch!   Wait a minute!  This girl has clog danced on my heart for the last three years, enough!  Time to move on, so while I did meet her, she got to see me in the full flower of my assholiness.  I was cool, collected and indifferent and by the end of the afternoon she was probably sorry she’s rung me.  I later found out that she had finally decided to give me my shot but in my smugness I’d completely blown it. Over the following years, lots of other stuff happened and my Marina imagery morphed from pure, romantic love to a sense of loss.  I missed missing her.

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            Years later, by 2003 I had reached a point where I was utterly joyless, hated my life… and my artwork.   I’d become so detached from what was important to me, how did I get here?  I used to love my work, I was passionate and everything was important, where did I go wrong?  I decided to retrace my steps and try a sort of mnemonic exercise.  I tried to create a variant on what I’d considered my first real piece of art: the triptych of Marina I’d done all those years ago.

            A gallery I was showing with in Rhode Island (sadly, no more) put it on their website.  Right about that time, Marina was looking at the old portrait I’d given her with her daughter.  They wondered what had ever become of me and decided to google me.   The first thing that slowly fills the screen (dial up) is a NEW painting of a seventeen-year-old Marina!  She emails the gallery, they put us in touch and here we go again.

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            Now we are middle aged, both married, settled into our lives, I can finally speak freely and tell her of the powerful influence she’s had on my life and the artist, and man, I became as a result, after all, the past is in the past.

            We become pen pals, I write her tales of all the horrid things I’d done and what a jerk I’d been over the years.  She tells me all about her life and I hang on every word.  I’m focused on my work again, in my art at least, I’m happy again.

            After a few years of this, we were best friends and I was just happy to have her as part of my life.  A day without a note from her was absolute misery but if you asked me if I was in love with her I could honestly answer of course not, we’re just friends, she’s got a perfect life.  But I hadn’t seen her in over twenty years.  She decided to fly over for a visit.

            Seeing her at the airport after all these years I was hit with the same intensity of emotion as in that dark pub in Oxford. Uh Oh… THAT’S what this is…. While I probably overshare my own story, it’s not my business or interest to tell other’s tales.  Suffice it to say, this time it was mutual.  We agreed we wanted to marry before we’d ever even had our proper first kiss, and here we are.

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